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William Abbott, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, thought about becoming a teacher.
But as his career in media sales took off, Abbott decided against getting an education degree. Instead he successfully expanded the family friendly Hallmark Channel brand in cable and beyond and helped new generations of network staffers learn the business.
Under Abbott, Hallmark Channel expanded its original programming and has grown ratings and ad revenue. The company launched a second channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which is thriving. With cable bundles getting skinnier, Crown is launching another channel, Hallmark Drama, and an over-the-top service specializing in the wholesome programming that’s resonating with advertisers and viewers.
Crown Media executive VP of pricing, planning and revenue Kristen Roberts has worked for Abbott for most of her career — starting at the Family Channel, where Abbott worked in the research and ad sales departments, starting in 1988 — and calls him a friend and a mentor.
“He’s definitely our leader. He has the vision and the strategy for the network. He’s involved in all the execution as well,” Roberts said.
Even though his job is demanding, and his travel schedule is punishing, “he knows every single person who works here. He still does meetings every Friday morning with the sales assistants,” Roberts added. “It’s pretty unbelievable how he finds time truly to know everybody in the company at every level. I don’t know how he does it.”
Abbott joined Crown Media in 2000 after rising to senior VP of ad sales for Fox Family Worldwide. He was Crown’s head of sales when the network became Hallmark Channel; it was a tough sell at first, recalled Crown Media director Peter Lund. Abbott rose to CEO in 2009, succeeding fellow B&C Hall of Famer Henry Schlieff.
“He’s very much of a visionary in terms of being able to not only decide, in concert with everybody else, what the channel should be, what is its appeal to the viewers, who are the people we’re trying reach, but also in translating that vision to the people that have to implement it,” Lund said.
He’s also built a terrific team and doesn’t take credit for their work, according to Lund. “He’s serious about his job, but he doesn’t think he’s the only person in the world that can do it.”
Charlie Collier, president of AMC Network and Sundance TV, noted that he and Abbott came up on the sales side of the business before becoming responsible for an entertainment brand. “Bill has done a remarkable job of translating the iconic American Hallmark brand to television audiences while building a healthy business,” Collier said. “On top of it all, he is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Jon Stimmel, chief investment officer at UM, a division of IPG Mediabrands, has known Abbott for 25 years. He said that as Crown Media grew, Abbott “continued to be the same genuine person.” Abbott has been part of Stimmel’s fantasy hockey league for 20 years, sometimes attending its draft. “I think him making time for the little things when he has a big job is what makes him stick out.”
Harry Keeshan, president of video investment at PHD US, talked about Abbott’s great integrity. He also praised how Abbott supports his staff. “The thing I always liked about Bill is that for a man in his position, he shows up. When his team is doing an outing, or a breakfast, he comes along with the entire team.”
Keeshan added that Abbott “is always interested in talking to all levels of people. He takes the time to meet the people who are just getting going, as well as the people that are running the agencies. That’s unique.”
With the TV industry going through remarkable changes, Abbott said the youngest people in the business can make important contributions.
“I learn as much as they do, especially nowadays when technology is really so much driven by that generation,” Abbott said. “They are always on the cutting edge so they have a unique perspective on a lot of what’s going on and in terms of things we can do.”
Abbott includes younger staffers in his Integrated Programming Strategy Group, which looks for ways to make Hallmark content more compelling.
“It’s really a mix of people from across the organization, people who really want to learn more, want to be creative, want to contribute in a different way,” he said. “That group comes up with a lot of innovative ideas that we’ve found very helpful.”
Abbott said he’s proud that there are so many people at Crown that have worked there with him for a very long time. “We’re still on a great ride and we have created an environment of respect and professionalism,” he said. “We try to work to live and not live to work. And I think that has changed a lot of people’s lives for the better.”
He’s known to run with staffers in corporate challenges and came in second in last year’s Christmastime ugly sweater contest.
For Abbott, the travel he does is the tough part of the job because it keeps him away from his family.
“I have a great wife who went to Berkeley, who is as smart as they come but decided to stay home and raise the kids,” said Abbott, who grew up on New York’s Long Island and went to Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Shannon brings a California perspective to our lives. If I hadn’t had that kind of guidance, this job would have been a lot harder.”
His four kids range in age from 20 to 15. Eldest daughter Beth is a junior at Barnard; Oliver is a sophomore at Holy Cross; Jamie is a senior in high school and a rower who is being recruited by several schools; and Perry is a sophomore in high school. Perry is undecided, “but she better go to Holy Cross if she knows what’s good for her,” Abbott said.
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